Where Were You?

Peter Wood

My wife took a taxi to Logan that morning to catch a flight to St. Louis for a business trip. We’d been fighting recently and I was relieved to have a few days alone. I walked to work from my Back Bay condo to my office on Bay State Road—the president’s office at Boston University where I was chief of staff. It was one of those glorious early fall days when a high-domed sky exalts everything. Tuesday mornings were “administrative group,” when the president and the provost met with all the dozen vice presidents. When I got to the office a little before nine, Joanne, the president’s secretary asked, “Did you hear that a plane flew into the World Trade Center?” “You mean like that plane that once flew into the Empire State Building?” I was recalling the incident in 1945 when a B-25 bomber lost in the fog crashed at the 79th floor. It killed the three crew members and eleven office workers, but the building withstood the damage.

“No, I think this is something bigger.”

It took a few minutes to realize how much bigger. I called Media Services and asked that a television be brought to the Trustees Room for the meeting with the vice presidents. Seeing the gash and the smoke in the first tower, I thought of the poor people on the plane, then realized that there must be people trapped in the floors above. We watched with horror as the second plane hit and the horrors continued. One building collapsed. Then the other.

Somewhere in the news the two airliners were identified as westbound United flights that had been hijacked from Logan. It didn’t register with me immediately. Then it did.

It turned out that Mohammed Atta and his henchmen had picked other planes but my wife, flying United that day, had crossed paths with them that morning at the terminal. Her plane, which was bound for Phoenix after St. Louis, was grounded there. We spoke. She sounded unnaturally detached and cryptic.  I couldn’t tell what was going on.

The president of BU, Jon Westling, decided at the meeting that the University would stay open. March Chapel would serve as a gathering place for those who wanted to pray or just be with others, but classes would continue. I was teaching my graduate seminar in anthropology that afternoon. All the students showed up. After briefly telling them that, mindful of the unfolding national tragedy, we should try to carry on, we plunged ahead with Argonauts of the Western Pacific.

That’s about it. Except it isn’t. The shock waves of 9/11 were profoundly unsettling to America and they worked their way down through the lives of everyone. Within 10 months of the attack, my marriage of 25 years was over. President Westling had resigned. The provost fired me from my administrative position hours after Westling departed. My life became unglued. None of this was directly on account of 9/11 in any outward way, but at another level it was all 9/11. There was an inexorable working out of the logic, and I would have to go into details that are too personal to explain exactly how. Tension in my marriage and in the university that would probably have remained just unresolved tensions suddenly broke free like dogs that had snapped their chains. Life was full of strange and unexpected acrimony.

The pulse of national unity at this time never felt stronger but it seemed to mask a pit-of-the-stomach fear which in turn danced with brittle assertiveness. People around me were determined to take charge, or determined not to back down, or determined to stand for things that all of a sudden were matters of principle when before they were mere inclinations or preferences. A spirit of exertion for exertion’s sake was abroad. It became hard to tell the difference among public figures between steadiness and grandstanding. We all paid deference to the victims, the first responders, the bereaved families. We didn’t seem able to talk about the huge collateral damage to the national psyche, at least not in a way that I could connect to the new aggression I saw all around me.

I was 47 at the time of the attack. I knew none of the victims and was nowhere close to being its victim, but 9/11 was a jagged edge that cut through my life in the weeks and months that followed. I expect the same thing is true in degrees of millions of Americans.  The aftershocks kept reverberating. In May, we added to the University commencement a memorial for the employees, parents, and family members killed in the attack. It was somber and moving, but I thought I detected in the crowd the first stirrings of impatience with the endless tributes. If it was tiring then, what must it be now? But it would be bad form to admit it and no one does.

Maybe not quite no one. Professor Wilfred M. McClay at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga published an essay this week in National Affairs, “Memorializing September 11,” carefully peeling back the layers of sensitivity to expose some painful truths. McClay mentions “the idea, peddled by figures like the literary critic Susan Sontag, University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, that America was somehow to blame for the attacks, and fully deserving of them.” He cites the 2006 poll that produced the astonishing statistic that 36 percent of Americans at that point believed that “government officials had either participated in the attacks or deliberately chosen not to stop them.” He laments the absence of “consensus about the meaning of events so momentous and terrible.” He notes the fierce concentration on memorializing the victims at the expense of considering the larger narrative of how the attacks changed the country. He brings up the fiasco of trying to rebuild at Ground Zero, in which the nation appears hopelessly incompetent:

But a decade has now passed, and those promises [to rebuild] ring sickeningly hollow. The specific reasons for the failure lie in a bottomless pit of excuse-making, ego-jousting, self-interestedness, and bureaucratic inertia, and it would be an immense task to compose the indictment that would identify the individuals or groups who bear the greatest responsibility.

And McClay does not spare the “survivors,” those “family members who complained at the size of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund awards—which averaged $2.08-million per victim—or who exploited their standing to support political causes only barely related to the attacks, or who attempted to make money from their status in various ways,” and who so doing “have badly strained that compassion” we felt for them.

And then, of course, are the lawyers, who memorialized 9/11 with “a flood of litigation and claims that has only recently begun to subside.”

McClay’s commentary rings true to me: a saddened reflection on the failure of the nation to do much more than wallow in victimhood at the 10th anniversary of this atrocity.  I’d like to contribute my small bit to changing the tone.

I can’t help thinking of my life as before and after 9/11, but after, despite some bruises, is definitely better. My first approximation was that 9/11 made others around me more hard-edged, but it hardened my edges too. I too became less willing to compromise on matters that seemed to me to deserve more than a quarter commitment. I learned that I needed to make decisions rather than straddle the alternatives, even if that meant some near-term pain. I began to take chances that before I never would even have considered. I gave up my tenured position at BU and ventured off to a start-up sectarian college. When I found myself increasingly doubtful about where that college was going, I resigned with no other prospect in sight. I trusted I could find my way. I did.

Where was I on 9/11?  I guess I was waiting for something to fall out of the clear blue sky.  I had no idea it would be blazing destruction. These days, I’m not waiting.

Much of the memorializing of 9/11 this week rings hollow, a distraction from the slow fire of the economy that is burning up the lives of many millions of Americans who would prefer to work but can’t find jobs. Higher education has become a holding room and graduate school a refuge for those who haven’t been able to come to latch on to anything in particular. We engage in an elaborate national pretense that this great pursuit of degrees (17.56 million undergraduates and 2.86 million graduate and professional students, according to the latest figures) will strengthen national competitiveness and improve individual prospects. But much of this is surplus education leading nowhere.

If 9/11 left us as a nation something of value, it is the bone-deep understanding that we have to be responsible for ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation. Victimhood, passivity, and the search for refuge are not the path ahead. Do the memorials serve a purpose? Yes, if they remind us that the time for grieving is over and the time for demanding more from ourselves is at hand.

This article originally appeared on September 7 in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

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